Using a series of Wild West style computer games, Australian researchers report in the journal Nature Human Behaviour that they have developed a way to accurately assess how impulsive people are – an important attribute for mental health.
Poor impulse control is a core feature of many different conditions such as addiction, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, personality disorders, bipolar disorder and some dementias, as well as various risk-taking behaviours like reckless driving or unsafe sex.
But until now, no comprehensive cognitive tests have been developed to measure impulsivity, or disinhibition, according to lead author Antonio Verdejo-Garcia from Monash University. Validating such a test would require large sample sizes.
To address this, his team collaborated with game developers, Torus Games, to create an online test that could reach more people than is possible in the lab. They also realised they needed to make it engaging.
“We created a gamified test battery in which cognitive tasks that measured different impulsive mechanisms were ‘disguised’ as fun and challenging games,” Verdejo-Garcia explains.
The battery includes a bounty hunter game, where you have to shoot the bandit but not the sheriff; a spotter game, which involves guiding a caravan safely through dangers and obstacles and deciding what gradually emerging images are (such as a buffalo or cougar); and the prospector’s gamble, where you pick the luckiest prospector while fortunes are changing.
Behind the scenes, each task is designed to measure a distinct aspect of impulsive behaviour: attention lapses, acting before gathering enough information and limited use of feedback from previous choices.
The team first delivered the “Cognitive Impulsivity Suite” online using the crowdsourcing platform MTurk with a community sample of more than 1000 people. Then they confirmed their findings with 63 people in the lab before delivering it online again with a sample of 578 people, including participants with alcohol and drug problems.
Results showed the test is an accurate and reliable measure of the three different impulsivity features that can help identify the likely cognitive source of disinhibition. It was also accurate at predicting real-world addiction-related problems.
Currently, the test provides a useful research tool for gaining further insights into mental and neurological disorders associated with impulsivity, but Verdejo-Garcia says it has the potential to be developed into a tool for clinicians and the general public.
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Natalie Parletta is a freelance science writer based in Adelaide and an adjunct senior research fellow with the University of South Australia.
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